Thursday, July 31, 2008

July was a month of...

...CRAZINESS!!! I feel like my life has been in fast forward for the last several weeks. I just got back from a fun, but very busy trip to NYC, and I'm leaving tomorrow for a weekend in San Antonio. With the travel, overtime at work, being in a wedding, and other general busyness, my reading and blogging was sadly neglected. However, I somehow found time to buy lots of books! I thought I would share a picture of the pile I aquired through a library sale (my first one--thanks Trish!), a giant used bookstore, winning a giveaway from Jeane, and using a birthday giftcard.

The bookshelf in the back contains books I've already read, and the lava lamp and radio are sitting on a short bookshelf that contains non-read books. What you can't see is how full it is. I really want/need to get another tall one! I have set a goal for myself not to buy any more books for the rest of the year. My short term goal for August is to get back on track with reading and blogging. I need to catch up on my reviews and with my Google reader. Since August in Texas is generally WWAAAAAYYYY too hot to be outside (unless you are in a pool), what better to do than sit in wonderful A/C enjoying ice cream and books?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

1984 by George Orwell

Though I finished reading George Orwell's "reverse utopian" novel 1984 several days ago, I've been putting off writing the review for several reasons. First, I don't exactly know what to say about this book. It took me two entire weeks to read this relatively short book because I was unusually busy, but also because I did not look forward to reading it. I had to force myself to pick it up and concentrate. The second reason I've put off the review is that I know I'm not going to do the book justice. Because I was really busy, I really just needed a good story to read. While 1984 does have a main character, Winston Smith, the book is far deeper than this one man's story. I skimmed over several passages in the book because I was impatient, and I found them to be dry, but I know if I would have spent the time, I probably would have better understood what Orwell was saying through his book. So, I apologize for my review ahead of time--I'll try to find links to good reviews to share!

Society in 1984 is run by a totalitarian government. There are 3 classes of people--the smallest group, yet the people with the most power and privilege is the Inner Party. The Outer Party have very few creature comforts, but they work in government office-type jobs. The remaining class, which make up 85% of the population, are the "proles." They are looked down upon as unintelligent, and have hard labor-type jobs. Though English is still spoken, many words have been completely dropped off, with the introduction of "Newspeak." The goal is to have a language that is so easy and has so few words that people really don't have to think very much at all, and there is literally no way to have thoughts of words such as "freedom." Along with the language, the past is slowly being wiped out. Books of all types have been altered to remove anything that is not in alignment with the Party. Reading, writing, thinking, and feeling are not only discouraged, but punishable.

There are three major powers in the world at this time--Oceania (the setting of 1984), Eurasia, and Eastasia. The three powers are constantly at war. Who Oceania is at war with, and who they are allied with changes frequently, but no one really pays attention. People's lives are devoid of emotion, fun, and free-will. They do exactly what they should be doing, according to the Party (Big Brother), as they are constantly watched from the ever present telescreens and/or hidden microphones that are in homes, at work, and even outside in the woods. People that deviate are "vaporized" and their names are erased from any records--as if they never existed.

Winston Smith, an average 39-year-old Outer Party member is unhappy with this life and occasionally has flashbacks to his childhood when things were different. He knows the history books aren't accurate, as his job is to actually update the past events to make them parallel with the Party's agenda. He only takes part in the Party rituals, such as the Two Minutes Hate, because he doesn't want to disappear forever, to become and "unperson." He lives in constant fear, and knows he can't trust anyone...until he meets Julia. It is only after he begins spending time with her (which completely isn't allowed), that Winston really learns what happiness could be like, as well as what the Party is capable of.

Imagining this world of despair and loneliness is depressing. I'm glad that even though we are well past the year 1984, our world is not even close to the dreary place pictured in the novel. Well, actually, I don't know...maybe someone is watching us through our televisions...

Read other reviews: (please let me know if you've read and reviewed it, and I'll add your link).
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
The Inside Cover
Thoughts, Books, and Philosophy

Date Completed: July 20, 2008
# of pages: 308

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn-Betty Smith (and first book club meeting)

Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books not only this year, but in the last several years! Published in 1943, this bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, is still popular today. Francie Nolan, her younger brother Neely, and her parents Katie and Johnny, live in the poor Brooklyn slum of Williamsburg. Though Katie works extremely hard, Johnny is an alcoholic and does not have steady work. Francie and Neely contribute what they can by collecting rags, metal scraps, and other odds and ends to be sold for pennies every Saturday. The family barely scrapes by, and occasionally must go without food. However, their story, mainly Francie's story, is not about poverty and despair. Instead, her story is about resourcefulness, family, determination, education, and hope.

Francie is a bit of a loner. She doesn't have many friends, but she spends most of her free time reading. She decides to read every book in the local library, from A to Z (except on Saturday, when she can read a book out of order). Once in school, Francie learns she has a gift for writing as well, and makes high grades on her compositions. Outside of her schooling, she learns many other valuable life lessons from her mother--such as how to bargain with the butcher, or the importance of saving money. Most of the time, Francie seems much older than she is. Probably like many children living in this situation, her childhood is cut short. When she is only 14, she finds a job in the city, and is making the majority of the family's money. However, she still finds a way to continue her education.

I can understand why this book is still so widely read 65 years after it was written. There are so many interesting and original characters! Even though the characters were flawed, it was easy to see the good as well as the bad. Johnny loved his children and wife, and they knew he loved them, even if he had a drinking problem. Aunt Sissy adored Francie and Neely and brought them small gifts or sweets (even when she herself had very little to give), but she was looked down upon by other women because of the way she acted with men. Francie's mother Katie favored Neely over Francie, but she also pushed Francie to be independent and taught her how to get what she wants by working hard. It was very enjoyable to read about the development of all of the characters throughout the 17 year span of the novel. I was sorry when it ended, and I want to know what happened next with the family!

This was the first book for a new book club I'm in with some girls from work. We decided to meet once a month, and each month one person will "host." The host chooses the book, the meeting place, and facilitates the discussion if necessary. I volunteered to go first, so this was my month. Though I believe I liked this book the most, the others enjoyed it as well. I think the general consensus was that it was a bit on the lengthy side, but the story was worth the time. Some of the topics we discussed were: the strength of the female characters, the bits of humor speckled throughout the story, how we felt about of the characters, why Betty Smith wrote about this time period, and what we think would happen in Francie's future. I would say this is a good book for a book club, though there probably won't be much heated debate or too much varying opinions--so a good choice for a first meeting! I wasn't sure how this first meeting would go, but now I'm really exited about being in a real book club!

Read other reviews of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn here:
Trish's Reading Nook
An Adventure in Reading
So Many Books, So Little Time

Date Completed: July 6, 2008
# of Pages: 483

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Then We Came to the End-Joshua Ferris

Joshua Ferris wrote his first novel, Then We Came to the End, about a group of people who work in an advertising agency. Most of the diverse group have little in common, except for their job. They don't hang out on weekends, they don't call each other "just to talk" after work, and they don't truly know much about each others' personal lives, except what overlaps with the job, or happens at the office.

Like with many office workers, there are times of the day when they need a break from sitting behind a desk and staring at a computer screen. Thus, they have found a few distractions, and these seem to be broken into 2 options--gossipping or playing pranks. Gossip--whether in a co-worker's office, in the hallway, or at the coffee cart--seems to be common in office settings. However, this agency is a breeding ground for gossip, as business is not good, and layoffs are common. Along with formulating reasons for the most recent layoff, speculating who will be next is a conversation that takes place over and over, even within the same day. The pranks that are pulled go far beyond harmless humor, but instead seem to be intentionally hurtful. Though there may be a ringleader to these pranks, no one is willing to "rat out" their co-workers.

Though quite humorous at the beginning, this book quickly turns dark. Most of the people seem to be unhappy with not only their jobs, but with their lives in general. While there isn't necessarily one main character, none of the various characters are very likable. As a whole, they are petty and mean, and I found it difficult to find any redeeming qualities. Benny is the guy who is well-liked by the majority, but I never figured out why. Joe seems to have a good head on his shoulders, and generally stays away from the gossip, but he has little to no personality, and is definitely forgettable. Tom is completely unpredictable, is beyond rude to almost everyone, and is probably certifiably crazy. Interwoven with the daily happenings at the office, there are glimpses into the personal lives of some of the characters, but they are brief. Though these glimpses helped me to understand somewhat why some of the characters act like they do, I only found myself feeling sorry for some, and really disliking others. I did not truly LIKE any.

I think the fact that most of the entire novel is written in the first person plural ("we") perspective only added to my overall discomfort with the book. In the author interview at the back of the book, Ferris explains why he chose to write in this perspective. He says that "Companies tend to refer to themselves in the first-person plural--in annual reports, corporate brochures, within meetings advertising...It's not just a company's way of showing unity and strength; it's also a matter of making everyone feel as if they're a member of the club." In theory, this is a genius idea--to write a book about a group of corporate employees all talking as one. However, I found it confusing, and I was always trying to figure out who was talking. Also, I could have done without the language. It was not at all necessary, nor did it add in any way to the story.

This is the first book I have read in a couple of months that wasn't for a challenge. I had heard good reviews, and I was greatly looking forward to reading it. I work in a cubicle in a typical office, and I was expecting a light, funny and relatable book about the antics and lives of other office workers. In no way was this a light book. There were a few funny parts, but they all occurred at the beginning, and while I could relate here and there to generalities of working in an office, I could not relate to any of the characters. In all honesty, I think I simply did not understand the book and it's purpose. If anything, reading this book made me extremely thankful for the office I work in and the people I work with!

Date completed: July 3, 2008
# of pages: 385